Victor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutVictor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutionaries are in control of St. Petersburg (or, rather, Petrograd) and have begun a period of purges, reprisals, and terror. It is impressionistic, episodic, and truly a communist story, in its root meaning of communal. It is not an individual person's story, but rather a story, told through glimpses of dozens of different lives, of both a people and an idea in a particular moment in history. In Serge's novel, the revolution itself is the main character, a strange, amorphous but unitary creature -- at once rough beast, fighting out of instinct and elemental need, and political-philosophical being, pressing onward through exceptional, sometimes nightmarish, times, driven by a deliberate consciousness of a higher purpose, an intellectually cohesive and morally justified imperative.
Born in Brussels in 1890, a child of Russian exiles, Victor Serge participated in anarchist movements in both France (where he was jailed for several years) and Spain. In 1919, he traveled to Russia to join the revolution. His fortunes in Russia rose and fell with his degree of agreement with the Soviet political establishment. He was expelled from the Party in 1928 and later imprisoned, and eventually permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Conquered City, written in 1931 in quick succession after two other revolutionary-themed novels, is a reflection of what he witnessed during the civil war in St. Petersburg.
The New York Review of Books Classics edition of Conquered City includes a foreword by translator Richard Greeman which illuminates the novel a great deal, providing important context. For example, this excerpt from the foreword quotes Serge to describe both his primary thematic interest in writing the book, and his conscious aim to create a narrative greater than any one character:
"His goal in writing Conquered City, he wrote to [French author Marcel] Martinet in 1930, was to 'reconstitute with the greatest accuracy and precision the atmosphere of one period of the Russian Revolution. . . . In [Conquered City], I would like to dramatize the conflict of that power grappling with history and itself -- and victorious.' Serge went on to outline for Martinet his plan for this new novel which he believes will be 'radically different' in its form compared to
'any I have read. . . . It will have a sort of plot, central if you will, but like a narrow thread running through a complicated design. . . . It is not a novel of handful of people but that of a city, which is itself a moment and a fragment of the revolution. I keep rather close to history -- without writing history -- and chronicle, but above all concerned with showing the men who make events and who are carried away by events. From this standpoint, the characters have but a subaltern importance, they appear and disappear as they do in the city without occupying the center of the stage for more than a few instants.'"
Serge's work has been largely unknown until recently, but the NYRB Classics series has brought him a new world of readers. Greeman's foreword notes that as a Russian writer who published most of his work in Paris, Serge embodied a dual cultural perspective. Greeman adds, "Ironically, Serge's literary cosmopolitanism and Marxist internationalism has prevented him from being domesticated into the university, where departments are divided into national literatures like Russian and French, both of which apparently ignore his work." I can attest to this personally. I have a Masters degree in Russian literature, with a particular interest in early 20th work, and yet I had never heard of Victor Serge before a friend introduced me to this novel.
Serge's work stands out among other fictional accounts of the revolution. He was committed to the revolution and remained dedicated to its ideals, but was not blind to its contradictions and excesses. The revolution's young idealists often wound up either corrupted by the regime or disenchanted by it, resulting in a literature that either falsely idealizes the revolution, or rejects and condemns it completely. But this piece occupies an unusual middle ground, providing a refreshingly multi-layered picture that encompasses both the hope and the tragedy of the revolution, seen through the eyes of a true believer. Serge's point is that within its own success, the revolution carried its own demise. In remaking society, it remade itself, purging the contaminating elements within itself and in the process becoming many of the very things it fought against.
Beyond the politics, the novel impresses stylistically and narratively. It is filled with deeply evocative images and passages too numerous to count, which convey a full atmosphere of advance, defeat, struggle, hope, resignation and acceptance in the smallest detail. For example: looking out over a still, clear winter morning panorama of the city, at a time when shortages, hunger, and industrial collapse pervade the city, a character observes, “All this beauty was perhaps the sign of our death. Not a single chimney was smoking. The city was thus dying.” (p. 57)
Elsewhere, an official of the new regime reflects on having been stopped and questioned by a sentry guarding a woodpile, and voices his discomfort with his own relative privilege, and its contradictory necessity:
“He had taken me for another wood thief at first. I could have been one. People steal the wood that belongs to everyone, in order to live. Fire is life, like bread. But I belong to the ruling party and I am ‘responsible,’ to use the accepted term, that is to say, when all is said and done, in command. My ration of warmth and bread is a little more secure, a little larger. And this is unjust. I know it. And I take it. It is necessary to live in order to conquer; and not for me, for the Revolution.” (p. 35)
Also, true to Serge’s intent, while the barest outline of a plot can be discerned among the details, it is not nearly the most important focus of the story. The reader is carried along from chapter to chapter, peeking into rooms and lives that sometimes also bounce tangentially off one another, deflecting the narrative into another room, another scene, another story. Many characters lives’ intersect, usually unbeknownst to the characters themselves. Sometimes fates of parties with quite opposing motives and loyalties mirror each other in their crises, if not their intent. Often, the story throws the reader from the end of one chapter into the middle of a unrelated conversation or action in progress at the beginning of the next, leaving the reader to orient herself to the new surroundings and events. And in the end, the entire novel seems to fold back on itself, completing its year-long journey on a night that is almost a perfect stylistic echo of the opening night, which at the same time, it clearly does not parallel in action.
The effect of all this is powerful, an aesthetically complex story that conveys the paradoxical reality of the social and political revolution, communicating the principled idealism that drove it, as well as the individual hardship that it caused. ...more
In trying to describe this book and the work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing that came to my mind was the words of poet DylaIn trying to describe this book and the work of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing that came to my mind was the words of poet Dylan Thomas. Watching Russia’s barely-worthy-of-the-term democracy steadily crumble, Politkovskaya stubbornly refused to let it go gentle into that good night. A Russian Diary is a rage against the dying of the light. It is a brilliant and sobering piece of work that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in current world politics, and for anyone who believes in the critical role of a free press in keeping governments honest. Politkovskaya takes your breath away with her unblinking look at the many, many wrongs of Russian politics and society, and with her determination to continue to expose all she can, albeit at tremendous risk to herself.
For those who don’t follow world politics or who don't know much about Russia, a brief introduction may be in order. Former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enjoys support within Russia and stature amongst leaders internationally, but it is also well known that the life-long KGB man (who later headed the Federal Security Bureau, successor to the KGB) rules in a way that echoes darker times in Russia’s past. The country is governed through strongman tactics and corruption abounds. Journalists and human rights defenders face pressure and intimidation, and several – including Politkovskaya herself – have been assassinated. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia waged two wars against the breakaway region of Chechnya (located at the southern edge of Russia, near Georgia and Turkey), and other regions in the area have been the site of violent conflict in recent years. Numerous terrorist attacks have occurred in Russia during this time as well, in connection with those conflicts.
No matter how much you know about Russia and its recent history, though, A Russian Diary is sure to be an eye-opener. The book, covering the period from the Russian parliamentary elections in late 2003 until the end of 2005, is Politkovskaya’s diary-style reflection on contemporary events in Russia as they happened. (She also includes additional commentary for context or when later events clarify earlier events.) This period sees the solidification of Vladimir Putin’s strong-armed rule; ongoing human rights abuses in Chechnya and other southern territories; the stifling and gradual cooptation of human rights activists by the Putin government; the continuing impoverishment of the population throughout Russia, and especially in the smaller villages and peripheral provinces; and a devastating number of deadly terrorist attacks, including, most tragically, the September 2004 siege of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.
To put it bluntly, Politkovskaya’s Russia is one scary place. The first part of the book is entitled “The Death of Russian Parliamentary Democracy,” an ominous title that is shown to be only too true. From the outset, when the pro-Putin United Russia party sweeps to power in the Duma (the Russian parliament), it seems Putin is fated to win re-election to a second term as president, and the parties of Russia’s “democrats” seem completely unable – and/or unwilling – to do anything other than squabble amongst themselves. In the end they are totally unable to raise any realistic opposition against the Putin machine. Eventually, first one then another and another democrat crosses over to Putin’s party. Soon it is patently clear that the choice is to join forces with Putin, or watch your political career disappear. One presidential candidate does actually disappear, his whereabouts unknown until he resurfaces with a stranger-than-fiction tale of being kidnapped, smuggled by government forces over the border to a secret service site in Ukraine, and drugged to extract information. After the incident he withdraws his candidacy and travels to London, from whence he announces he will not return to Russia: a defection by a presidential candidate from a democratic country.
The book is replete with these and many other jaw-dropping details of life in contemporary Russia. It becomes incontrovertibly clear that the notion of “democracy” in Russia is a pathetic sham. Politkovskaya paints a portrait of Russia as a place where only power and influence and money speak – and money only sometimes. Reading A Russian Diary, one is struck by a sense of gaping disbelief at the parade of calamities that occur day by day, which Politkovskaya recounts with a quiet, steely outrage. In most other places in the world, just one out of the litany of crises she documents would be considered a disaster or an atrocity. In Russia, they are received with a sort of numbed horror at best, or with numb acceptance at worst. Sometimes a few brave souls rise up to fight against whatever new indignity Russia has heaped upon them but their efforts seem doomed. The politicians are no help. Putin and his men keep a stranglehold on the country, through the media, through manipulation, through influence peddling. In the face of this level of control, the ability of ordinary people to get redress is practically non-existent.
And this is a society where almost no ordinary person gets off easy. Soldiers are haphazardly sacrificed by feuding commanders in Chechnya. That is, if they make it that far: scores of young recruits die just from the unbelievably harsh treatment they receive in basic training. Veterans are so abandoned to poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and post-traumatic stress that in one town alone, a 200-member Association of Servicemen of the Chechen Wars has been established – inside the prison. Pensioners can barely survive on their paltry pensions, and face losing in-kind benefits in place of laughably inadequate monetary “replacement” payments. Orphanages struggle with dwindling resources – especially after charitable donations from the wealthy dry up when tax credits for them are abolished. Ordinary workers are routinely underpaid, or paid in goods only. And, in a country where the threat of terrorism is a true constant, investigations are stonewalled in order to protect government officials.
Politkovskaya tells heartbreaking stories of the families of Beslan. Not just about the loss of their children in the 2004 school attack, but of the horrors those in the school suffered during both the siege and the criminally botched assault on the school by government forces, as well as of the ongoing suffering of the survivors as they are ignored and misled by the authorities and forgotten by the pubic at large in the months after the attack. (On December 11, 2004, four months after the attack, Politkovskaya writes, “As for Beslan, the town is quietly going out of its mind." And she means it. )
Given all that Politkovskaya so unflinchingly reveals in this book, two questions must inevitably stand out in the reader’s mind. One, in light of what ultimately happened to her, how did Anna Politkovskaya manage to stay alive and publish all that she did as long as she did? She could not but have been one of the worst thorns in the side of Russia’s powerful. Knowing her final end, reading what she wrote, it seems so tragically inevitable that someone would try to silence her permanently.
The second question is, what are the democratic governments of the West doing, carrying on relations with Putin’s Russia as if it were a normal country? Perhaps it is no more than the idea that in its current state, it’s safer to keep Russia within the fold, rather than outside it.
There is no reason to suspect anything has changed since the book’s publication. Putin has managed to keep himself in power, while formally leaving the office of President in the proper way, by anointing a loyal protégé as his successor as president and becoming prime minister himself. Human rights forces continue to face pressure and opposition (a few years ago, the Moscow office of the international organization I worked for had to go through a confounding process of “re-registration” suddenly required for all human rights organizations operating in Russia). And terrorism remains a constant in Russia, with the most recent examples, as I write this, of a bombing at a theatre in Stavropol on May 26, 2010, and two subway bombings in Moscow in March 2010.
As I mentioned at the outset, A Russian Diary should be required reading for anyone with an interest in current world politics. However, last and absolutely not least, the book is a critical statement of the indispensability of a free press in any society. It is a powerful testimony to the fierce heroism of tenacious and committed journalists around the world, who never cease to amaze me with their unwillingness to let go of the story of abuse of power, even at the cost of extreme risk to themselves. The lack of an adequate press in Russia has to be included among the reasons for its current condition, and Politkovskaya’s book shows how desperately a strong, free press is needed. While successive waves of formerly “opposition” politicians – erstwhile champions of democracy – gave in to political pressure to join the pro-Putin choir, and other journalists and news outlets self-censored and shrank away from reporting facts uncomfortable to the Putin administration, Anna Politkovskaya relentlessly continued to pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz every chance she got. A Russian Diary shows her to be uncompromising and unstoppable – until, that is, someone found a way to stop her forever, with an assassin’s bullet, on October 7, 2006. Her work and life demonstrate the power of the pen to strike fear in to the hearts of dictators and tyrants of all stripes.
A year before his defection to the West in 1951, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.” In this case, it's the journalist.
As long as this review is, I can't help making it even longer by including some quotes. There are so many I didn't know where to begin -- or where to stop, evidently...
"This whole system of thieving judges, rigged elections, presidents who have only contempt for the needs of their people can operate only if nobody protests."
[Politkovskaya published frames a from a video made by a Russian soldier in Chechnya in 2000, showing Russian soldiers tormenting a group of prisoners of war they had already beaten horribly.:]
"What happened when the frames from this record of our own Abu Ghraib were published? Nothing. Nobody turned a hair, neither the public, nor the media, nor the Procurator’s Office. Many foreign journalists borrowed the video from me, and in Poland the headline over the pictures was “The Russian Abu Ghraib.” In Russia there was silence."
"What is emerging in Russia is not a stabilizing middle class, but a new class consisting of parents whose children have died in terrorist acts."
"People didn’t elect Yeltsin in 1996 because they believed in his prescription for taking the country forward, but because they feared what might happen if the Communists got back in. Government resources were shamelessly exploited, national television stations broadcast only in favor of Yeltsin and were in effect his campaign cheerleaders. People turned away in disgust when they saw how the ‘democratic’ parties kept silent about this travesty of democracy. A number of democrats even stated openly that it was reasonable to sacrifice the truth in order to save democracy.
This enthusiasm for sacrificing the truth caught on, and became the main force propelling Putin to power after Yeltsin proclaimed him is successor. The Kremlin took control of all television news coverage, with independent stations allowed only to provide entertainment, even when hundreds were being killed in Chechnya.
And that was the end of that. The election was based on trickery, fraudulence, and state coercion. The democrats kept mum, trying to cling to their vestiges of power in the Duma and locally. They forfeited whatever was left of their authority, and the Russian people are now profoundly indifferent to all things political. That is the terrible legacy of 13 years of Russian democracy.
[In June 2005, the trial begins a group of young pro-democracy activists arrested after a demonstration in December 2004. The are charged with "organizing mass disorder." They are led into the courtroom chained together, and placed into barred “cages” for the accused.:]
"It has to be said that putting as-yet-unconvicted people in chains and cages seems something of an overreaction; not even terrorists and serial rapists are brought to court in chains. As we can see, those whom the state authorities really fear today are dissidents."
"Officially, 58 percent of those surveyed approve of the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians.’ Another 58 percent, when asked what they would do if they earned a decent salary, said they would immediately buy property abroad and emigrate."